As if to acknowledge the creative fatigue that threatens to stifle a series that’s been on the air for nearly a decade, the 10th season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia doubles down on off-format episodes that tweak the show’s trademark formula. Though episodes typically revolve around harebrained schemes hastily concocted by the five jubilantly amoral bar owners at the show’s center, the new season frequently backgrounds those elements in favor of storylines that play with form and structure in exciting ways. The series has always been prone to creative experimentation, but it’s never been as pervasive, or as successful, as it is here.
The most thrilling of these experiments comes in “Charlie Work,” whose ambitious second half is composed of a 10-minute long take that bests True Detective’s own infamous tracking shot for meticulously choreographed chaos. The episode opens on Charlie (Charlie Day) preparing for a surprise health inspection that coincides with one of the gang’s less sanitary schemes—one that involves live chickens and contaminated beef. As the rest of the group carries on with their plan along the sidelines, Charlie works to get the bar in order, an endeavor whose obstacles include a toilet in which Frank (Danny DeVito) has flushed his shoes (“It’s an anxiety thing, Charlie…Flushing things gives me control”) and a basement so filled with carbon monoxide that it doubles as a rat mausoleum. The onset of the inspection prompts the long take, and as we follow Charlie on his manic tour of the bar, we glimpse an adeptness rarely apparent in a character typically upheld as the show’s most dimwitted. The episode’s expression of character is triumphantly tethered to its formal achievement—an unbroken demonstration of Charlie’s often elusive talents.
“The Gang Goes on Family Night” is filmed and structured like a typical episode of Family Feud, and the constraints imposed by that rigid format make the episode’s ability to generate laughs—particularly through Dennis’s (Glenn Howerton) hapless attempts to mitigate the group’s evident eccentricities in front of a live audience—all the more impressive. “The Gang Misses the Boat” is the sort of meta lark seemingly obligatory for a long-running series, but in considering what would become of the five leads if they went their separate ways, the episode astutely pinpoints the neuroses that prevent each member from functioning outside of the group’s insular world. If the episode’s conclusion—that only together can these broken individuals achieve any sort of balance—feels predictable, the deft build-up proceeds unexpectedly, with the reconnection of Charlie and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) through slam poetry the sort of off-kilter conceit the series is able to present as a natural progression for this pair of oddballs.
“The Gang Group Dates” is a sterling example of one of the show’s impulsively patchworked ruses that bumps up against current trends, as the gang attempts to capitalize on the phenomenon of group dating. Satire has rarely been the show’s forte, and the episode smartly downplays its send-up of dating apps in order to spotlight the characters’ individual vulnerabilities. Oddly enough, the most poignant showcase is of Dennis, whose obsession with the low star ratings his dates have assigned him leads to a loss of confidence that momentarily humanizes the latent sociopath. It’s discomfiting to feel something for Dennis, but Howerton, feverishly unhinged in his portrayal, unearths a helplessness we haven’t seen before. It’s a performance that speaks to this season’s vigor, as the series is mining new character terrain from familiar setups.